It began with what has been called Cancel Culture, I suppose. Without much warning, I was subjected to a number of public accusations by various women of my alleged misdeeds. These accusations were largely unsubstantiated and were simply the public revenge of various disgruntled and jilted former lovers and employees.
But the resulting furor was considerable. I was dropped by my long-time publisher, in a very public manner. My book sales, which had been very considerable (and some quite lucrative movie development deals) quickly began to evaporate. […]
I spent a small fortune on lawyers. It was not successful. And in the court of public opinion, I was tried and convicted in short order. And so, it was in the depths of despair that I somehow found a most unusual, a most intriguing, website for someone or something called “The Repairer of Reputation”.Diane Woods, Devil’s Due: A Transgender Tale (2021)
“The Repairer of Reputations” is the first, weirdest, and arguably most important tale in Robert W. Chamber’s 1895 collection The King in Yellow. It is also the hardest to actually follow up: Chambers had set the scene thirty years in his future, in the manner of future war stories like H. G. Wells’ “The Land Ironclads” (1903). The narrator is unreliable, as is Mr. Wilde, the eponymous Repairer of Reputations, which adds to the mystery and disquiet of the story—how much of this is true, and how much is madness?
While a few works like Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows’ Providence have deliberately woven some elements of that story into their own, this is rare. Most who draw on The King in Yellow focus on the Yellow Mythos surrounding the play, such as “Cordelia’s Song from The King in Yellow” (1938) by Vincent Starrett & “Evening Reflections, Carcosa” (2011) by Ann K. Schwader rather than the events of the story. So there is a certain cleverness in how Diane Woods takes the idea of the Repairer of Reputations and gives it the perfect contemporary context: who would be in more need of such a service than someone who has been canceled?
Political partisans can be relieved that this book is not about cancel culture, either for or against. The social ostracism is the catalyst for the events of the story, and Woods never goes into vast detail about how true the allegations are or whether the outrage is justified or not. This is, as the story suggests, a transgender tale: the way that the protagonist’s reputation is repaired involves becoming someone else.
Impossibly, my transformation was complete. This was monstrously alarming, of course, but Tanya assured me that this need not be a permanent change. For my own personal reasons, this felt deeply ironic to me. At the same time, deeply erotic.
Since my adolescence, I had been obsessed with the idea of a male being transformed into a female. And since my teens, I had compulsion to periodically dress in the clothes of a female. This has been my most closely guarded secret, of course. But it may help explain what happened next.Diane Woods, Devil’s Due: A Transgender Tale (2021)
Fantasy gender-bending stories are nothing new. H. P. Lovecraft had body-swapping in “The Thing on the Doorstep,” Bergier used Mythos magic in “Celui qui suscitait l’effroi…” (1958), John Blackburn had a surgical solution in Dagger of Blood (1997), and so on. The method varied, but the result was often the same: a gender transition that was often swift and total. The reality of transition is much longer, messier, and more difficult, involving various degrees of psychiatric evaluation and therapy, hormone treatments, and possibly surgery—and accompanied by legal and bureaucratic hurdles, healing times, side effects from medication, and social ostracism.
Transgender fantasies cut past many of the real-life difficulties to focus on the drama—and sometimes wonder—of the transformation itself, and in many ways are probably closer to transformation erotica than to any desire to live vicariously through someone else’s transition. In this respect, many such “gender bender” tales are closer to a fetishization of the idea of gender transition, titillating readers with the taboo of crossing that imaginary definitive line between male and female, rather than any effort to create an authentic transgender character.
Devil’s Due: A Transgender Tale is not King in Yellow erotica in the usual sense, however. There are a few scattered erotic scenes in the book, but those hoping for a version of the King in Yellow to appear with a three-foot penis will be sadly disappointed. Fantasy transition tales like this one have a body of tropes of their own, involving how willing the participant is, how they come to accept or reject their new gender, etc.; if the physical transition is swift, the mental transition and acceptance of new gender—and often new sexuality—takes longer, and Diane Woods plays with some of the familiar tropes, but shies away from going into lengthy and explicit sex scenes as the protagonist, now a woman, has to find out if she is a lesbian or bisexual.
While the premise of the story is focused on the repairing of the protagonist’s reputation, and the gender transition is a part of that, the plot gets a little messier. Rather than keep strictly to the Yellow Mythos, Wood brings in elements of the Cthulhu Mythos including Randi Carter (a transitioned Randolph Carter) and Nyarlathotep; the relatively magical physical gender transition is accompanied by a science fiction hypnosis/brainwashing device that facilitates the mental transition and sets up a somewhat Twilight Zone-esque ending. It is far more Mythos material than is strictly necessary for the plot, and gives the story a bit of a fanfiction feel which it didn’t need to accomplish some of the plot twists—but some of the twists themselves aren’t bad.
It is important to note that Devil’s Due does not tackle a difficult subject via the medium of the Mythos in the manner of “Koenigsberg’s Model” (2011) by Peter Tupper & “The Ape in Me: A Tale of Lovecraftian Lust” (2016) by Raine Roka; that is, Woods is not using the story to address any social theme or element in Chambers or Lovecraft’s fiction, or any such theme or element in their personal prejudices. Devil’s Due is a transformation story that uses the Mythos for inspiration and aesthetics, but there’s not any deeper message about how Lovecraft felt about gender or how Chambers depicted gender in his stories.
Which is fair: not every latter-day Mythos story has to be a commentary on what has gone before. Devil’s Due is a competently-written fantasy transformation story; the riff off of “The Repairer of Reputations” helps it stand out from the dozens of other titles involving gender transformation on the Amazon ebook stocklist, and that is no doubt the point. If anything, it perhaps reads a bit closer to some of the older, less sexually explicit transvestite and transgender stories edited by Sandy Thomas.